Following a road loss Saturday to then-No. 11 West Virginia, Ohio State now embark upon a stretch during which they should be favored to win in their next six contests. First up is Iowa (8:30 p.m., Big Ten Network), which sits next to last in the Big Ten standings.
Carver-Hawkeye Arena has been a tough place for OSU recently. The Buckeyes had lost four in a row in Iowa City before eking out a two-point victory a season ago. Matta could not pinpoint one reason why the Hawkeyes give the Buckeyes fits while playing on their home court, but any hope for an Iowa upset this season will likely come from the three-point arc.
As of games played through Jan. 24, Iowa sat second in the conference in three-pointers made with an average of 8.10 per game. Northwestern led the league with an average of 9.00.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Matta said the team spent a lot of Monday's practice working on guarding against three-pointers.
"I think we're stopping a little bit short," the coach said. "There's a six-inch window we've got to go a little bit closer on those guys."
It sounds easier said than done, but the recent numbers show that the Buckeyes have struggled with the concept. OSU ranks ninth in the Big Ten in three-point defense, allowing opponents to shoot 35.0 percent from beyond the arc.
That number has gotten worse within the past two weeks. In their last five games, the Buckeyes are allowing opponents to hit on 40.2 percent of their treys (49 for 122). The worst performance during that stretch was Wisconsin's 9-for-23 effort Jan. 16 in Columbus.
OSU has won the last four of those five games, but it will have to show improvement in that area if it hopes to keep its winning streak intact.
Junior point guard Evan Turner said it starts with the Buckeyes simply keeping hands up.
"Sometimes we might be victims of having our hands down," he said. "At this level if you have your hand down at any time, (the shot) is going up. That's a correct way to get punished, having a three put in your face. We have to make a note of keeping our hands up."
Those numbers get worse within conference play. Through eight Big Ten games, OSU is last in made three-pointers allowed at an average of 8.4 per game. Bottom-dweller Penn State is next at 8.1 per contest.
"Teams aren't beating us with driving and penetrating or anything like that," Turner said. "They're beating us with the three."
One theory is that the Buckeyes are too tired to effectively challenge shots. Matta has employed a tight bench with no more than six players guaranteed action on any given night.
Turner downplayed the thought that fatigue might be affecting OSU's defensive efforts.
"If you're on the court, you've got to play," he said. "Sit down if you can't do it."
Although OSU's recent defensive performances figure to be enough of a motivating factor, the team can look back to a loss suffered in Iowa City two years ago as well. In a game that helped firmly knock the Buckeyes out of NCAA Tournament consideration, Iowa's Justin Johnson connected on 8 of 13 three-pointers to lead the Hawkeyes to a 53-48 victory.
Although Iowa is among the most prolific three-point shooting teams in the league, it is not particularly adept at hitting them. The Hawkeyes rank ninth in three-point percentage at 33.1 percent. Just one player from Iowa ranks among the 15 most accurate three-point shooters in the conference: senior Devan Bawinkle, who has gone 21 for 57 (36.8 percent) from deep.
If the Buckeyes want to continue their winning ways, they will have to force the Hawkeyes to score inside the arc. That has pretty much been OSU's method of operations this year.
"It's something that you've got to have," Matta said of defensive intensity. "You go into a game like this, the shot clock is going to come into play. You've got to have a great sense of urgency about you every time you cross that line to play defense."